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Mozart: The Reign of Love
by Jan Swafford
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We love to think we know who Wolfgang Amadé Mozart was. The foul-mouthed man-child of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, perhaps? The victim of poisoning by his fellow Freemasons or his rival Salieri? The poverty-stricken genius of legend? Little of that is true, of course, but what is certain is that few hearts fail to melt upon encountering his humane, joyous and ravishingly beautiful music. The challenge for any biographer is how to articulate where this elusive magic comes from. In this gigantic book devoted to a man who died at 35, the American composer and academic Jan Swafford has met that challenge head on and traces its source, with some conviction, to love.
Mozart was born in 1756 in Salzburg, the son of a mediocre violinist and composer named Leopold Mozart. Wolfgang and his sister, Maria Anna (or “Nannerl”), were child prodigies, and Leopold did not stint on their exploitation. Who needs school if you can perform to the empress and do musical tricks blindfolded at the harpsichord? Papa led the two children on a gruelling schedule of touring through the royal courts and capitals of Europe, raking in the profits along with diamond-encrusted watches and jewelled snuffboxes filled with louis d’or. He squirrelled away the lot, for himself.
Swafford lets this often deplorable man's words and deeds speak for themselves, but also lands an occasional killer blow. "Leopold's protests of poverty, ranging from furious to anguished to pathetic, must be seen in that light: he was lying." Truth and lies provide a rich thematic vein throughout.
The family in which Mozart grew up was nevertheless a happy one: unlike the aristocracy, middle-class musicians could marry for love. Later the composer sought a happy family of his own in Vienna, marrying Constanze Weber in 1782 (after first falling in love with her sister, Aloysia) and enjoying fatherhood, though sorrowing over four of his children who died in infancy. His light-spirited yet great-hearted love for life, fun, music, Constanze, his sons and his friends is mercurial and irresistible — feeding his music’s imaginative world from the almost-perfect opera Le nozze di Figaro to the lyrical and crystalline piano sonatas.
Small, pale, pockmarked and twinkle-eyed, Swafford’s Mozart is so vivid, so real, so rounded that you feel you could shake hands with him. If you had to travel in a carriage for three days, you would want his company. Yet he could also be his own worst enemy. Spurned by Aloysia at a party, he took public revenge by improvising a cruel song, which probably scuppered any last hope of winning her. Later, under pressure, he could find an outlet in silliness: at one formal reception he conversed in rhyming couplets. Swafford’s plentiful translations of Mozart’s letters (both polite and less so) and his daft doggerel often sparkle like the music itself.
The dark side, though, is plentiful. The impact of his mother’s death in Paris in 1778 is affectingly described, as are his relations with his father, which grew more and more frosty. On his death in 1787, Leopold left everything to Nannerl and disinherited Wolfgang. He had encouraged Nannerl's career, then snuffed it out because she was female. It would have been good to read how she felt about this.
Swafford's prose flows beautifully and is often cheeringly informal. Describing 18th-century Vienna, he shows us "the misery of dust that billowed everywhere all the time, a compound of dirt and the desiccated filth of horses and dogs that got into your clothes, your house, your eyes, your mouth, sometimes your very soul". Here Leopold medicated his ailing child with 'black powder': a powerful laxative that included charcoal, deer antlers, myrrh, coral, frog’s head, placenta and powdered earthworm. It's a wonder poor Mozart made it to 35.
What killed him, though, was neither murder nor lack of money. He did have cash flow issues — and it is suggested, ever so gently, that the billiard games he loved included an element of gambling — but in his last year he earned a handsome living.
No, the killer was his life's purpose: his music. "He worked himself to an early death in service of an uncanny closeness to perfection that he held in his hands from early on, but about which he was never complacent and never satisfied." Mozart died in December 1791, and when you reach March of that year and realise that he has still not begun his last two, gigantic operas, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote, you can feel the approaching juggernaut of the workload - which adds to the ache of tragedy. Swafford argues for Die Zauberflöte as the greatest of his operas; this may be controversial, but I, for one, heartily agree.
This hefty book does have the occasional infelicity, such as Swafford's speculation, not once but three times, that Casanova, in the audience for Don Giovanni (he had a hand in the libretto), would have been laughing. That seems superfluous. Musical descriptions are legion, if entirely readable, and while the opera explorations cut unerringly to the chase, not every instrumental work quite jumps off the page. But when Swafford pulls out all the stops — over, for example, the Piano Concerto in C major K467 — he can make your knees buckle: "Call this Andante a distilled avatar of sexuality: desire, caress, piercing relief, languorous aftermath, sweet communion physical and spiritual ... Mozart walks in beauty, and he is the generous lover of everyone who knows him."”"
Mozart was not a revolutionary artist and did not break especially new ground; he did, however, dig deeper and find unsuspected riches through his understanding of how to translate the human condition into the art of sound. Likewise, Swafford does not upend our vision of the composer, although he quashes myths with clear-sighted good sense. Instead, he too goes deeper, in his invocation of Mozart’s presence and what makes his music so special. For many his works are dear old friends. You can come away from this book feeling that he is too.
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